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Nate Simpson, who co-founded The Rink, a South Side skating haven, dead at 75

‘The Rink was a real mainstay,’ longtime patron Natha Mitchell says. ‘It was a Black-owned business in the Black community. It was a place for people to go in the community with their families.’

Nate Simpson was a sheriff’s deputy and co-founder of The Rink on 87th Street, a gathering spot for African American skaters and center of JB skating — smooth moves int he style of James Brown.
Nate Simpson was a sheriff’s deputy and co-founder of The Rink on 87th Street, a gathering spot for African American skaters and center of JB skating — smooth moves int he style of James Brown.
Provided

The Big Wheel. The Godfather. The Low Shuffle.

For decades, people have been doing those steps in a blend of dancing and roller-skating at The Rink on 87th Street, co-founded by Nate Simpson.

The smooth Chicago specialty has become known around the world as JB skating for its rubber-legged resemblance to the fancy footwork of the singer known as Soul Brother No. 1, James Brown.

“The Rink was a real mainstay,” said longtime patron Natha Mitchell. “It was a Black-owned business in the Black community. It was a place for people to go in the community with their families.”

“You had a place of safe haven you could go. You could bring your children,” said Carmen Simpson Clark, Mr. Simpson’s business partner and ex-wife. “People became friends. They met there and married and had children.”

She said that by the time she and Mr. Simpson sold The Rink last year, “Some of the original skaters, their children and grandchildren are skating there.”

Mr. Simpson died Saturday at the University of Chicago Medical Center of an illness he’d been diagnosed with a year ago, his family said. The Flossmoor resident was 75.

Mr. Simpson was a Cook County sheriff’s deputy working at the Markham courthouse. But to the many patrons of The Rink, he was much more, not only providing them a place to go and have fun but also giving many their first jobs.

“He was the father, the uncle,” said Darnell Cheers, 50, a DJ who goes by the name DMC. “Kids grew up there, and he knew all the parents of the kids my age. He watched everybody come up.”

Chance the Rapper — who sings, “We used to roll at the rink, we used to roll at the rink” in his song “Juke Jam” — was among the patrons, Clark said.

Nate Simpson (in Sox cap) with (from left) his son Nate Simpson III and Chance the Rapper.
Nate Simpson (in Sox cap) with (from left) his son Nate Simpson III and Chance the Rapper.
Darnell Cheers

The Rink “was your home away from home,” said writer Marcie Hill, who lectures on Chicago skating history.

Despite digital distractions, “Here we are, 45 years later, and we’re so grateful we still have a place we can come and skate and have a skate family,” said Curtis Pouncy, who with his wife Ramona bought The Rink last year. “So many people have shared with me this skating rink saved their life because they were headed in the wrong direction.”

One of them is a skater who asked to be identified only by his first name, Jeremy, who said when he started coming to The Rink 15 years ago, “I’d been shot multiple times, I’d been to jail.” At The Rink, he said, “There was no gang-banging. They respected Nate, The Rink and the culture and what it provides — I don’t think I would be alive or free if I didn’t have skating and The Rink.”

He credits Mr. Simpson with helping him become an event planner and clothing designer.

“I’m proud of the person I’ve become,” he said. “The Rink has made me a success story.”

Nate Simpson at The Rink with (from left) his grandson William, business partner and ex-wife Carmen Simpson Clark and daughter Valencia.
Nate Simpson at The Rink with (from left) his grandson William, business partner and ex-wife Carmen Simpson Clark and daughter Valencia.
Darnell Cheers

Young Nate grew up on the South Side. His mother Parmeta Jones Simpson was a teacher who graduated from the University of Chicago in the 1940s. His father Nathaniel was a real estate broker. He attended Harlan High School and DePaul University, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and served in the National Guard.

In their younger days, Clark said, they’d often go out to skate, sometimes in the suburbs. “He said, ‘Why are we driving to Markham two or three times a week, and there is nothing in Chicago?’ ”

They opened their first rink in 1975 at 8920 S. Ashland Ave. In 1985, they moved to the current location at 1122 E. 87th St.

“We were the first Black-owned roller skating rink” in Chicago, Clark said.

They had two pool tables, a dance floor, table tennis and cornhole toss games. Over the years, the skating evolved to “skate dancing,” performed to floor-filling songs spun by DJs.

“The JB style of roller skating, which originated in Chicago, consisted of grooves and bounces, fancy footwork and standing dance routines borrowed from the Godfather of Soul himself and dating back to the 1970s,” according to Tom Russo’s 2017 book “Chicago Rink Rats: the Roller Capital in its Heyday.”

“The skating culture among Chicago’s Black community is a specialized phenomenon,” communications consultant Don Rashid said. “Its people have incredible skating skills.”

Cheers said that, when he DJs, older skaters like to skate to the funky slow burn of music like The Temptations’ “Take a Stroll Through Your Mind” and “Who Wants to be like the Joneses,’’ Eddie Kendricks’ “Intimate Friends” and anything by The Whispers. Others, he said, lean toward James Brown, Loggins & Messina’s “Pathway to Glory,’’ Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir’’ and “We Will Rock You” by Queen. And Gen Z kids like producer remixes of original James Brown songs.

JB Skating is also popular in Atlanta and Detroit, according to Clark. “They come [to The Rink] with two or three buses from Detroit every year. They would come because they like the style,” she said.

For people who didn’t want to skate to secular music, The Rink scheduled gospel nights, Clark said.

When Mr. Simpson bought the building, which formerly housed an electrical supply company, it had interior support columns that were removed so people could skate.

“He couldn’t get an architect or engineer to take him seriously enough to work with him,” said Lee Bey, a Sun-Times editorial writer who’s a relative through marriage. “But he happened to find a steel fabricator nearby that had an engineer on staff. And together they worked out an exposed overhead-truss system on the roof of the building — not unlike what Mies and engineers did to create an open unobstructed space inside Crown Hall. Once they got the system built, they had to then go inside and remove all the original structural columns.”

“I held my breath every time they took a column away,” Bey said Mr. Simpson told him. “But the roof held. The system worked.”

Nate Simpson (from left) with his son Brandon Blue, granddaughter Brittany, daughter Lindsey Simpson and son Nathaniel Simpson III.
Nate Simpson (from left) with his son Brandon Blue, granddaughter Brittany, daughter Lindsey Simpson and son Nathaniel Simpson III.
Provided

Mr. Simpson’s survivors include his daughters Valencia Simpson Owens and Lindsey Simpson, sons Brandon Blue and Nathaniel H. Simpson III, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.